Friday, January 1, 2016

2016—Year of the Cat?

 Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman

Leslie Wu of Forbes Magazine beat my tagline today in wishing you a Happy New Year: Says Wu: “Although we’ll be ringing in the year of the fire monkey for Chinese New Year in February, it could be said that 2016 will be the year of the cat…Cat cafes are springing up across Canada, where those lacking feline companionship can reserve time with these most reserved of creatures. From Vancouver to Montreal, the stressed, lonely or just plain cat deprived can cuddle their woes away with adoptable new friends (in partnership with the local SPCA or Humane Society). Although cat cafes have been popping up globally, Canada’s entry into the market has been relatively recent.”
The domestic cat hasn’t always been in this position in society. In fact, the cat has had a complicated history with humanity since it first stepped into some Natufian’s rice granary and slammed its paw on a mouse. It hasn’t been easy for Felis silvestris sybica…
From Bastet to a witch’s familiar… from the Chesire Cat to Schrödinger’s Cat … from Japan’s Beckoning Cat to Hello Kitty … from Aristophanes’ “the cat did it” to That Darn Cat’s wily DC … from Pokemon’s Meowth to A Cat in Paris … from Puss in Boots and Tom Kitten to Grumpy Cat … Humanity has deified, vilified, coddled and persecuted the domestic cat. Both icon and sacrifice, the domestic cat has lived in paradox alongside humanity for centuries. Perhaps because it is itself a paradox.
When I observe my cat friend, furled out languidly, yet poised to leap, I recognize the unfettered wildcat deep in his soul. I recognize the anima mundi in his reflective eyes. The domestic cat embraces paradox: relaxed and alert; fierce and calm; tame and savage; mysterious and comforting. He embodies yin and yang.
The story of the domestic house cat’s evolving journey is subtle, complex and rife with contradiction. The domestic cat has evolved from wild hunter to opportunist predator and as partner alongside humanity as companion and symbol.
It began about 11 million years ago when the Pseudaelurus, a medium-sized catlike animal, roamed the steppes of central Asia. Although it went extinct in Asia, receding sea levels permitted the Pseudaelurus to migrate across what is now the Red Sea into Africa, where it gave rise to the caracal and the serval. The Pseudaelurus also crossed the Bering land bridge into North America and gave rise to the lynx, bobcat and puma. Isolated migrants to South America created the ocelot and Geoffroy’s cat. The big cats—lions, tigers, jaquars and leopards—evolved in Asia then spread to other parts of the world.

John Bradshaw, author of “Cat Sense”, writes that today’s domestic cat evolved some 8 million years ago in North America then migrated into Asia about 2 million years later. About 3 million years ago, they evolved into the species we know today, including the wildcat, the jungle cat and the sand cat—whose feet pads are covered in thick fur to protect them from the hot sand.
The first signs of integration with human communities occurred some 10,000 BCE in Mesopotamia. Widely regarded as the inventors of agriculture, the Natufians of 11,000 to 8,000 BCE inhabited the once highly productive Fertile Crescent that encompassed what is now known as Israel-Palestine, Jordan, southwestern Syria and southern Lebanon. Initially hunter-gatherers, the Natufians
A Cat in Paris
started growing crops such as wild cereals. When the climate changed perceptibly around 10,000 BCE, they adopted intensive farming practices that required extensive storage. Attracted to the bountiful harvested grain, the house mouse moved in. And right behind it came the small wildcat. As agriculture spread, so did the “domesticated” wildcat, exploiting a plentiful food source.
Although several wildcats were associated with humanity, such as the fishing cat (Felis viverrina), the manul, and jaguarondi; the Arabian wildcat, Felis silvestris sybica, was identified through DNA testing as the “mother” cat of the domesticated cat we know today. Once so plentiful that it was considered a pest and hunted for food, this wildcat can still be found in remote areas of Europe, Africa, central and western Asia (where it may have first evolved). Felis silvestris comprises four subspecies: sylvestris (in Europe), lybica (Arabia), cafra (southern Africa), and ornata (Indian desert).
A cat was found buried alongside a human in a Neolithic grave in Cyprus from around 7,500 BCE. No burials of cats were recorded from the Middle East until thousands of years later. Was this an anomaly? Bradshaw thinks so: “a very special human and his prized tame wildcat.” In middle Egypt some 6,500 years ago a craftsman was buried with a gazelle (probably placed there for food in the afterlife) and a cat. Perhaps a pet? In Abydos, a tomb dating about 4,000 years ago, was uncovered that contained seventeen cat skeletons accompanied by seventeen pots—of milk? Egyptians began to paint and carve pet cats around then. A set of hieroglyphs—called “miw”—were created just for the domestic cat. Miw was adopted as a name for girls, suggesting how integrated the domestic cat had become in Egyptian society. Cats were depicted sitting in baskets or under a person’s chair (usually a female), and sometimes with a fish.
Miss Pussy Cat's Tea Party
Egypt doted on cats and worshipped them as god-animals. Bradshaw writes that the sun god, Ra, was occasionally depicted with the head of a cat and referred to as “Miuty.” Cat deities include: Pakhet, a lioness deity; and Sekhmet. Bastet was most associated with the domestic cat. She was the keeper of hearth and home, protector of women’s secrets, guardian against evil spirits and disease, and the goddess of cats. Bastet was commonly depicted as a woman with a lion’s head and carrying a serpent on her forehead. Later versions of Bastet more closely resembled a domestic cat as she became associated more with playfulness, fertility, motherhood, and female sexuality. Bastet or Bast was often associated with Isis (Ba-Ast translates to “soul of Isis”) and cats commonly found refuge in the temples of Isis. Fierceness and calm describes the goddess Isis as well as the cat. One theory of domestic cat distribution suggests that they followed the spread of temples of Isis. It was illegal to harm an Egyptian cat or to take it out of Egypt.
Tom Kitten
Joshua J. Mark, professor of philosophy at Marist College, New York, recounts how the Egyptian’s devotion to the cat was exploited by the Persians during the Battle of Pelusium (525 BCE) in which Cambyses II of Persia defeated the forces of the Egyptian Pharoah Psametik III to conquer Egypt. “Knowing of the Egyptian’s love for cats,” writes Mark, “Cambyses had his men round up various animals, cats chiefly among them, and drive the animals before the invading forces toward the fortified city of Pelusium on the Nile. The Persian soldiers painted images of cats on their shields, and may have held cats in their arms, as they marched behind the wall of animals. The Egyptians, reluctant to defend themselves for fear of harming the cats (and perhaps incurring the death penalty should they kill one), and demoralized at seeing the image of Bastet on the enemy’s shields, surrendered the city and let Egypt fall to the Persians.”
Van Gogh cat by Susan Herbert
The Egyptians are also responsible for the name “cat”, which comes from the North African word for the animal, quattah. Most Europeans use variations on this word: French, chat; Swedish, katt; German, katze; Italian, gatto; Spanish, gato. The colloquial word for a cat, “puss” or “pussy”, is also associated with Egypt in that it derives from the word Pasht, another name for Bastet.
The Indian cat goddess, Sastht, was greatly revered much in the same way as Bastet.
According to Mark, a Persian tale claims that the cat was created magically: “The great Persian hero Rustum, out on campaign, one night saved a magician from a band of thieves. Rustum offered the older man the hospitality of his tent and, as they sat outside under the stars, enjoying the warmth of a fire, the magician asked Rustum what he wished for as a gift in repayment for saving the man’s life. Rustum told him that there was nothing he desired since everything he could want, he already had before him in the warmth and comfort of the fire, the scent of the smoke and the beauty of
Van Gogh cat "after" by Susan Herbert
the stars overhead. The magician then took a handful of smoke, added flame, and brought down two of the brightest stars, kneading them together in his hands and blowing on them. When he opened his hands toward Rustum, the warrior saw a small, smoke-grey kitten with eyes bright as the stars and a tiny tongue, which darted like the tip of flame. In this way, the first Persian cat came to be created as a token of gratitude to Rustum. The prophet Muhammed was also very fond of cats. According to legend, the `M’ design on the forehead of the tabby cat was made when the prophet blessed his favourite cat by placing his hand on its head.”
Cats are thought to have been brought to Europe by Phoenician traders who smuggled them out of Egypt. By about 2,400 years ago, domestic cats became popular in other parts of the world such as Greece and Italy. Paintings typically showed cats unleashed and relaxing in the presence of people. They also appeared on gravestones, obviously as the pets of the people buried there. Greeks called them aielouros or “waving tail.” The same occurred in Rome, where cats typically appeared with women (men more commonly appeared with a dog). Felicula (little kitten) became a common name for girls.
As in Egypt, the domesticated cat became associated with goddesses in Greece and Italy, particularly Artemis or Diana. Ovid’s tale of mythical war between gods and giants, recounts how Diana escaped to Egypt and changed into a cat to escape capture. The cat was associated with Hecate, the goddess of death, darkness and witches. In the myth, Hera, enraged by the behaviour of a maidservant, transformed her into a cat and sent her to the underworld to serve Hecate.
Freya and chariot cats
In early Europe cats were not yet persecuted. Norse mythology depicted feral cats pulling the chariot of Freya, the goddess of fertile life and Nature. In Ireland and Scotland cats were deemed magical—in a good way.
The Pheonician traders may also have introduced to the rest of Europe the Greek association of the cat with Hecate. The association of cats with darkness, transformation, the underworld and witchcraft—and paganism in general—would lead to their persecution in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Negative consequences of deification occurred both in Egypt and in Greece: in the form of cat sacrifice (and mummification). The ancient Celtic tradition of burying or killing cats to bring good luck also spread across Europe. European cities celebrated a Festival of Cats in which cats were thrown into a sac and suspended over a fire; their screams supposedly warded off evil spirits. In Ypres during Kattenstoet, cats were thrown from the top of a tower to save the town. The last time a live cat was thrown off the bell tower at Ypres, Belgium was as recent as 1817. The cat festival still occurs in Ypres using plush cats and a mock witch burning.
As the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages and Christianity established itself in Europe
Katentoet 2015 in Ypres, Belgium
in the 12th and 13th centuries, cats suffered from their affiliation with pagan beliefs, which were considered cults and connected with Satan. The Catholic Church tried to extirpate domestic cats in continental Europe. On June 13th of 1233, Pope Gregory published his Vox in Rama wherein cats—particularly black cats—were demonized. Millions were tortured and killed, along with their female owners, who were considered witches. Some historians argue—though this has been disputed—that the aggressive killing of cats allowed the urban rodent and associated flea populations to thrive, which brought in the Bubonic Plague of the 1300s. Although also susceptible to the plague, enough cats must have survived both plague and human abuse to enjoy a better day.
Elsewhere, the cats faired better. Bradshaw writes of the Sultan Baibars, ruler of Egypt and Syria, who founded the first sanctuary for homeless cats in Cairo in 1280.
Cat lounging on a park bench
Today, in North America and Europe and other parts of the world, the domestic and feral cat seem to enjoy a renaissance existence in which they are generally treated well or at least left alone.
Sushi cat

In Japan, a cat may find itself doted on to the point of “torture”. “Hello Kitty, arguably Japan’s most famous export, is only the tip of the iceberg,” wrote La Carmina in her blog post of 2013. “Take a walk around Tokyo, and you’ll see cat faces on every product imaginable...” from bowler hats with pointy ears, kitty petting zoos and Chesire cat pizza. Japanese folklore give cats a protective power that symbolize good fortune.

Marks writes about Japan’s “Beckoning Cat” (the maneki neko figure of the cat with one
Maneki neko
raised paw), which represents the goddess of mercy. According to legend, a cat sitting outside of the temple of Gotoku-ji raised her paw to acknowledge the emperor who was passing by. Attracted by the cat’s gesture, the emperor entered the temple just as lightning struck the very spot where he had been standing; the cat had saved his life and was accorded great honours. The Beckoning Cat image is thought to bring good luck when given as a gift and remains a very popular present in Japan. Several islands off Japan have been called “Cat Island”. On
Tashirojima Island in Ishinomaki City, cats come to welcome the boats at the port. Many wait patiently around the fishing port for fishermen to return. Neko-jinja located in the central area of the island enshrines a “cat god” in hope of a good catch and safety of the fishermen. Aoshima Island in the Shikoku area is also known as “Cat Island”. The catch-phrase of this island is “15 residents and 100 cats.”

Cat Island, Japan
In Toronto, where I presently live, TOT the Cat Café, a coffee house, lounge and place to see and play with cats, has opened in November 2015 on College Street. The café has a lounge where patrons may interact with up to ten cats from the Toronto Humane Society (who are obviously up for adoption!). Friends and business partners, Kenneth Chai and Scott Tan are the cat fans behind the new café. The duo quit their jobs in Saskatoon and moved to Toronto, investing all their own money to realize their vision — a place that would offer both lattes and friendly felines. TOT is the first cat café in Toronto but not in Canada. There are several in Quebec, including Le Café Des Chats in Montreal (opened in 2014) and one in Chelsea, Quebec (Siberian Cat Café in late 2015) and Vancouver’s Catfé on West Pender, which opened in mid-December of 2015. Toronto’s Kitty Cat Café—self-professed “Purr Therapy and Coffee Lounge” in addition to pet adoption—will open soon.
Cat sleeping in a pot

On the West Coast cat cafés exist in Portland, Oregon, San José, California, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The idea was born in Taiwan in 1998, and spread to Japan, where it's estimated there are now nearly 150 cat cafés, and Europe (e.g., Vienna).


Bradshaw, John. 2013. “Cat Sense”. Basic Books, New York, NY. 307pp.
Mark, Joshua J. 2012. “Cats in the Ancient World”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia, 17 November, 2012. Online:
Wu, Leslie. 2016. "Cat Cafes Prowl Across Canada". Forbes Magazine. Online:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Tardigrade Christmas (a different Christmas story...)

Blika lived in Mossland with her clone sestras, gathering and sucking the delicious juices of detritus and algae. Never looking up or in much of a hurry, she lumbered from frond to front on eight stubby legs in a gestalt of feasting and being. 

Blika led a microscopic life of bloated bliss—unaware of forests, human beings, quantum physics or the coming singularity…
A sudden fierce wind wicked her water away. In a burst of alien urgency, she wriggled madly for purchase on the frond as it shivered violently in the roaring wind. Blika lost hold and the wind swept her into a dark dryness. Her liquid life-force bleeding away from her, Blika crawled into herself. The moss piglet felt herself shrivel into oblivion.
No, not oblivion… more like a vast expanse…
She had entered a wonderland of twinkling lights in a vast fabric of dark matter. Where am I?
It occurred to her that she had never thought such a thing before. Am I dead? She’d never thought about existence before either. What has happened to me? And where are my sestras? She felt an overwhelming sadness. Something else she’d never felt before and wondered why she hadn’t. Did it have to do with that liquid that had always embraced her with its life-force? 
Here, in the darkness of space, she felt alone for the first time, separated from the plenum.
“Welcome, sestra!” boomed a large voice.
Blika beheld a being like her with eight arms and hands, seated on a throne and wearing a jeweled crown. “Why do you call me sestra?” Blika asked.
“Because we are ALL sestras! You are a Tardigrade, aren’t you?” She waved all eight arms at Blika. “Well, I am your queen!” She looked self-pleased. “You are in Tunland now! The land of awareness. And now that you are self-aware, you can do anything! We’re special,” the queen ended in smug delight. The folds of her body jiggled and shimmered.
“Why are we special?” Blika asked.
“Because we are!” the queen said sharply, already losing patience with her new subject. “Don’t you know that you can survive anything? Ionizing radiation. Huge pressure. Boiling heat. Freezing cold. Absolutely no air. And no water…”
 Blika gasped. Water was the elixor that connected her to her sestras and her world… her…home…
“How do you think you got here, eh?” the queen mocked her with a sinister laugh. Blika cringed. The queen went on blithely, “So, where do you come from, piglet?”
“I’m trying to find my way home…”
“Your way? All ways here are my ways!”
“But I was just thinking—”
“I warn you, child…” The queen glowered at her. “If I lose my temper, you lose your head. Understand?”
Blika nodded, now missing her home even more.
“Why think when you can do!” the queen added, suddenly cheerful again. “First there is BE, then THINK, then DO. Why not skip the think part and go straight to the do part? In Tunland we do that all the time,” she went on blithely. “And, as I was saying, here we can do anything!”
The queen grabbed Blika by an arm and steered them through the swirling darkness of space toward a box-like floating object. “This is my doctor’s Tardis…”
“Doctor who?” Blika naively asked.
The queen shivered off her annoyance and led them eagerly through the door and into her kingdom.
They entered a strange place of giant blocks and whining sounds beneath a dark swirling sky.
The first thing Blika noticed was the huge tardigrades floating above them like dirigibles! Others were dressed in suits holding little suitcases and walking into and out of the huge blocks through doorways.
“We’ve crossed into another dimension—my universe,” the queen announced cheerfully. “Here you can do anything you want. So, why be tiny and feckless when you can be huge and powerful!” She studied Blika. “This is your moment to do what you could never do before. Think of the possibilities! You too could be huge!”
Blika stared at the strange world of smoke and metal and yearned for her simple mossy home.
As if she knew what Blika wanted, the queen quickly added, “But you can never go back home!”
“Why not?” Blika asked, disappointed.
Because, that’s why!” the queen shouted.  Squinting, she added, “It’s too late. It’s just not done! Once you’ve learned what the colour green means you can’t erase its significance!”
“But I still don’t know what the colour green means,” Blika complained. “And, besides, I think you’re wrong. Becoming self-aware doesn’t stop you from going home. It just changes its meaning. And if I can really do what I want, then you can’t stop me. I’m going home to my family.” 
The little hairs on the queen bristled. Then she grew terribly calm. “I won’t stop you, but…” The queen pointed to the floating tardigrades above them. “My water bear army will. I sentence you to remain in Tunland forever for your crime!”
“I haven’t done anything…yet.”
“You’ve broken the law of thinking before doing. In Tunland you have to skip that part—”
“You just made that up—”
“Doesn’t matter!” shouted the queen. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!”
“That’s nonsense,” said Blika loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first.”
“Hold your tongue!” said the queen, turning a shade of chartreuse.
“I won’t,” said Blika.
“Off with your head!” the queen shouted at the top of her voice, pointing to Blika with all eight of her appendages. The water bear army hovered over Blika, taking aim. They were going to get more than her head with those lasers, Blika thought, and scurried for cover faster than her stubby eight legs had ever moved before. She was doomed—  
Then, just beyond her sight, she saw—no felt—something far more significant than the colour green…or a huge bloated water bear army about to shoot her…
Water! She could taste it, smell it, hear it. Blika rejoiced with thoughts of her green home.
The water came in a giant wet wave of blue and silver and frothy green. Tunland sloshed then totally dissolved. Blika surfed the churning water. That green! She knew what it was! Blika reached out with her deft claws and snagged a tumbling moss frond. It finally settled and there were her sestras! So many of them clinging to the same green moss! She’d found her family! She was home! Yes, it was a different home and different sestras, but it was also the same. Love made it so…
For the first time, Blika looked up … and saw a bright star…


Tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, are plump, microscopic organisms with eight clawed legs. Fossils of tardigrades date to the Cambrian period over 500 million years ago. Over 900 species are known. 
Tardigrades were first described by the German pastor Johann August Ephraim Goeze in 1773 and given the name Tardigrada, meaning “slow stepper,” by the Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani. 
Tardigrades reproduce asexually (parthenogenesis) or sexually. They mostly suck on the fluids of plant cells, animal cells, and bacteria.
Tardigrades survive adverse environmental stresses including:
                High and low temperatures (e.g., -273°C to +151°C)
                freezing and thawing
                changes in salinity
                lack of oxygen
                lack of water
                levels of X-ray radiation 1000x the lethal human dose
                some toxic chemicals
                boiling alcohol
                low pressure of a vacuum
                high pressure (up to 6x the pressure of the deepest ocean).
Tardigrades respond to adverse environmental stresses through “cryptobiosis”, a process that greatly slows their metabolism. Tardigrades survive dry periods by shriveling up into a little ball or tun and waiting it out. They make a protective sugar called trehalose, which moves into the cells to replace the lost water.
You could say that the water bear turns into a gummy bear.
Tardigrades have revived after a 100 years of desiccation. The antioxidants they make soak up dangerous chemicals and tardigrades can also repair damaged DNA from long term dry-out. In low oxygen, the tardigrade stretches out, relaxed muscles letting more water and oxygen enter its cells. The tardigrade’s cold-resistant tun also prevent the formation of ice crystals that could damage cell membranes.
Tardigrades survive temperatures, pressures and ionizing radiation not normally found on Earth. All this raises questions of origin and evolutionary adaptation. How—and why—have tardigrades developed the ability to survive the vacuum and ionizing radiation of space? Some suggest that it’s because they originated there. Scientists argue that they developed extreme tolerances from Earth’s volatile environments (e.g., water bodies that freeze or dry up, and undergo anoxia). But, if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere. So, where is “home” really?…


My Book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press explores this creature and many other interesting things about water. Look for it in Spring 2016 on Amazon, Chapters and in bookstores near you.